Growing as a Writer, and a Person

In just a couple of weeks, July 12th to be exact, The Returned, will be released to the world. Surely you’re all aware of the date and are counting down with bated breath. This will mark my fourth published book in just under two years. I’m going to say that again because it’s still a little hard for me to believe. Fourth book. Published by a major publisher. Fourth book in two freaking years!

Ahhhhhh!!!
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Okay, sorry, where was I?

Despite the relatively short period of time, it feels like I’ve come quite a long way. The Returned is the first book whose outline survived until the very end. I admit, as a lifelong Panster—writes by the seat of my pants—I was worried the book would be too formulaic. It wasn’t. Wraith grows a lot as a person and a character, as do Caitlin and Edward, both in their relationship and as individuals. As release day approaches, I think about something I’ve heard other authors say; that it took them three or four books to feel as if they’d found their voice. It’s heartening to know I’m on a similar track.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my other books, but I think The Returned is my best work to date, as it should be. That growth and improvement is something I strive for as a writer: to always be improving in my craft. I’ve recently started rewriting a book—the first novel I finished—and it’s remarkable to see how far I’ve come as a writer since finishing that book. It’s also more than a little embarrassing to think I sent that manuscript to agents, but we’re not going to talk about that.

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Yes, I’ve improved as a writer, but for me, being a better writer is inextricably tied to being a better person. Unfortunately, growth and improvement is never a singular, instantaneous event. It happens over a long period of time, sometimes so slow that, like the proverbial frog in the pot of slowly warming water, it goes entirely unnoticed until you have some context. When it happens, it can be embarrassing (see above, and we’re still not talking about it) but mostly it’s wonderful to see, clearly and starkly, just how much progress has been made. In this post I talked about how much I learned about the tropes and stereotypes I’d blindly fallen into and how I work to rise above them. I say work not achieved, because I still have a long way to go. This fact was brought into harsh relief as I was editing The Returned.

The hardest part about change, of any kind, is accepting and acknowledging things about yourself that need to be improved or, shudder, “fixed.” It’s a fact: sometimes we meet an asshole, and sometimes, we are the asshole. Very few people enjoy being the asshole, particularly when it’s not intentional. I certainly don’t, especially when it adds to the already massive pile of shit that marginalized groups have to deal with. I’ve worked hard to, for lack of a better term, check my privilege.

I’m a straight white male who grew up in the 80’s. Like a lot of kids, in elementary school I had a fairly diverse group of friends, but as I grew up and social structure became more central to life—junior high and high school—my group of friends became more homogenized. In short, the vast majority of my friends looked like me and had similar experiences in the world. I imagine it was the same for a lot of people. For me, my distorted view of the world was compounded by a father who, to put it mildly, was a less than a stellar role model in terms of minorities and women. But that excuse only works for the young. Those who are, for lack of a better term, trapped in their environment and unable to change their circumstances. As an adult, I’m responsible for my behavior. Yes, we’re all, everyone one of us, shaped by our pasts, and we carry those biases, preconceived notions, and judgements forward into adulthood. BUT—and this is a “but” of mythic proportions—while I might have a reason for why I have those blind spots, it’s not an excuse to do nothing about them. Some people may see wanting to improve yourself as apologizing for who you are. I don’t, and I’m not.

The problem, however, is that blind spots are by their definition not visible. As the old saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know.” Often, we only find learn about them when someone else points them out. It’s easy to see that as a personal attack. In some ways, it is, and justifiably so. After all, I’m being the asshole. I know it’s not the responsibility of the person calling me out to do so gently or kindly. Is anyone regularly patient and understanding with assholes? I’m not. So, it’s my responsibility to recognize that I’m at fault, and address said blind spot like a grown up. I’m not saying I always agree, though I do always try to see things from their point of view. I’m not even saying it’s enjoyable, it can be shameful and embarrassing. No, it’s not always easy, but then I’ve never felt the fear of creepy men following me while catcalling, of being been pulled over because of the color of my skin, of being  threatened because of who I love, or the anger of being seen as less because stairs aren’t a pathway but a barrier.

It’s good to keep some perspective.

After The Forgotten, I thought I’d come a long way in terms of checking my privilege and making sure my characters all had agency (influence on the story). Turns out, I still have a long way to go, and a hell of a lot of blind spots. My editor for The Returned was a woman and several years my junior. Much to her credit, she never failed to call me out when I needed it and I have the utmost respect for her because of that. I won’t lie, I was shamed by how many small things she pointed out. Not because of anything she did, but because I felt I should know better. I’m both amazed at how subtle changes can make a huge difference in terms of granting, or taking away agency, and humbled that I didn’t see before, something that is so obvious now. Want an example? I originally wrote a line of dialogue where one male character asks another male character where he is taking his wife on their honeymoon. My editor (whom I’m not naming only because I didn’t ask her permission first) said I should change it so the first character is asking the second where he and his wife are going on their honeymoon. That small change moved the wife from being someone who was being taken somewhere (no agency) to someone who was going somewhere (agency).

Yes, that change is small, and incredibly subtle, but it makes a massive difference. The small things are, by their nature, the hardest to see. As someone who hasn’t had people try to take my agency away from me, I don’t always recognize when I’m doing it to someone else.

Imagine what it would be like meeting someone who mispronounces your name, and continues to do so every single time they see you. It would get annoying but you’d probably write that person off as a jerk. Now, imagine that it’s the majority of people you meet who do that. And more than that, when you correct them, they roll their eyes and tell you to get over it, or worse, threaten violence. That is just the barest taste, of the faintest whisper, of what some have to deal with every single day.

I’m sure there are some who will say I’m being ridiculous and that this is political correctness run wild. While I will agree there are some cases where PC has gotten out of hand, I think for the most part it comes down to respect, and treating people how you want to be treated. You know, like we all learned in kindergarten: be nice and polite to others, and when you’ve done something wrong, including hurting someone’s feelings, say you’re sorry. Some lessons never stop being valid. Though sometimes it can take forty years, and writing four books to really appreciate them.

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Best Meal I Ever Ate

Lawrence Schoen, author of the Nebula nominated novel, Barsk: The Elephant’s Graveyard, has an interesting series on his blog called “eating authors.” In it, Lawrence asks authors about the best meal they’ve ever had, and he invited me to join in the fun. The list of authors who’ve participated is rather prestigious, and their stories very interesting (Myke Cole’s is particularly so). Considering how prolific an author Lawrence is, that’s not surprise. You can read my contribution here (or the link below). While you’re there, be sure to peruse the rest of his site, it really has some excellent stuff there.

Eating Authors – Bishop O’Connell

Beth Cato Interview

Beth Cato is a fellow Harper Voyager Impulse author, maker of deliciously evil treats, and a Nebula award nominee for her novella, “Wings of Sorrow and Bone”. Her latest story in her Clockwork Dagger world, Final Flight, came out April 26th. If you’re looking for exceptional story telling (Nebula nomination!!!) or you enjoy steampunk, you can’t go wrong. Beth was nice enough to stop by the pub and answer some questions.


Welcome, Beth. First question is easy. What are you drinking?

Right now, I am partaking of my afternoon brain-boost of Grape Crystal Light with Caffeine. In terms of harder stuff, I love a sweet apple cider, vodka mix, or even some scotch.

I suppose scotch is an acceptable substitute if you can’t find any decent Irish whiskey, but moving on. Your novella, Wings of Sorrow and Bone , was nominated for the Nebula. Have you come down from the high yet of that nomination?

Not really, no. It feels even more unreal after having read the other novella nominees. They are extraordinarily good. I’m the geek hanging out with the cool kids.

We’re all rooting for you, and just hope you don’t forget about your friends when you’re famous and we start crowding onto your finely tailored coattails. Speaking of fashion, your Clockwork Dagger series is set in the Steampunk genre, do you have a special love of Victorian era history, or is it the steampunk genre in and of itself? It’s the hats and goggles, isn’t it?

I do like a fine hat, no argument there! I love steampunk because of how it straddles lines of history, technology, and magic, but the ultimate love—the one behind everything—is for historical fiction. I was a hardcore Laura Ingalls Wilder fanatic as a kid, and loved reading about the Civil War and the pioneer west. Both of my steampunk series (Clockwork Dagger and my new one, starting with Breath of Earth) are inspired by or set in the Edwardian period. I guess I like writing my steampunk mixed with some dieselpunk.

Sure, I can totally see how Little House on the Prairie can lead someone to a love for Steampunk… Anyhoo, your “Bready or Not” series on your blog is a compendium of delicious sweets and treats. Tell the truth, your cakes, cookies, and such are all part of a nefarious plan to take over the world, right?

You figured me out, Bishop. That’s actually a kinder motivation than I am usually afforded. My husband takes most of the goodies to his work, where his peers have accused me of trying to murder them with diabetes.

Your victory will be sweet indeed, and if you need a character witness I can be bought for a regular supply of cookies. Delving into your books, the protagonist of the Clockwork Dagger books is Octavia, a healer. Most fans of RPGs and other games usually see the healer as a support character. What made you want to put one front and center? Did you have any pitfalls along the way you had to deal with?

I wanted to make a healer my protagonist for that very reason. I always favored the healers/white wizards/priestesses when I played RPGs. I always wanted to see that character class as a main character in novels, and it just doesn’t happen. Healers are seen as weak–a convenience to keep the burly heroes alive–but best kept out of the action. That’s because there are some understandable pitfalls in writing that kind of character, especially if they tend toward nonviolence as Octavia does. How do they stay alive when people are trying to kill them? How do they fight back? How do they cope with the emotional aftermath? I had to strike the right balance, granting Octavia strength, savviness, and agency, even as she ardently believes in the sanctity of life.

That was a great answer, and I have no witty retort, so I’ll change topics. White chocolate: delicious treat or confectionary abomination?

Delicious treat for sure! It’s fabulous paired in cookies with macadamia nuts, and it’s a miracle shortcut in creating super-easy microwave fudge. It lends such smoothness when it’s melted down and mixed into dough. White chocolate deserves a lot more respect.

Mad respect for the white chocolate. Do you have any rituals when it comes to writing (music, quiet, wearing lucky socks, eating churros) or do you just sit and let the magic happen?

I don’t hold many rituals when it comes to my writing (beyond the standard blood sacrifices). I really need to be in my office, at my desk, with peace and quiet. My cat is usually snoring in her Amazon box nearby. I’m not one of those people who can tote around a laptop and write in coffee shops or wherever. That would be a nightmare scenario for me!

Do you prefer goats or chickens? Never mind, another time. How much planning do you do for a new book? Do you take endless notes and outline, or do you wing it and let the story unfold as you write it? Or something in between?

I’m a hardcore plotter. I create extensive outlines, and spend months and years researching. That’s been especially true with my new series, which takes place in an alternate history of 1906. My accumulated typed notes on Theodore Roosevelt alone are 8 pages, single-spaced, and I’ve read a few more books I should cull notes from.

On the topic of Teddy Roosevelt, what’s your favorite mythical creature?

Any sort of magical horse. Unicorn, pegasus, variations thereof.

Ah the majestic beauty of the fabled cornisus. So, Final Flight will be the third short format addition in this series. Do you find them easier to write than novels, or do the stories you’re telling just seem to fit in that range?

Final Flight is a long short story—about 8000 words. My two other Clockwork Dagger ebooks are The Deepest Poison, also a long short story, and my Nebula-nominated novella, Wings of Sorrow and Bone, which comes in at about 27,000-words. Wings is the only novella I have written and it was definitely an unnatural length for me to write. I’m used to doing either short stories or full-length novels!
That said, Final Flight was an excruciating story to write. I had a hard time getting into Captain Hue’s head and the story just didn’t click. Critique readers helped me immensely.

You just like saying “Nebula-nominated novella” don’t you? Can’t blame you, the alliteration alone makes it fun! What are you reading right now?

I just finished up another research book: Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream by Gregg Jones. A fascinating read about an ignored and shameful part of American history.

It’s always nice when you enjoy your research materials. You live in Phoenix Arizona. During the month of August, what precautions do you take to keep from bursting into flames when you step outside?

Avoid going outside, or summon Mole People to burrow deep within the earth to grant me access to places.

Oh, Mole People Uber is the best, isn’t it! They always bring those little bottles of water and are so friendly! For the fans of the Clockwork Dagger series, will there be any more stories in it?

Final Flight is the last one planned for now, but I’m totally game to write more stories and books in the world!

Anything else on the horizon we should know about and go preorder right this very minute so we don’t miss out when it’s released?

Yes! Breath of Earth! It’s out on August 23rd. Geomancy and mythological creatures in 1906 California. It’s dark, intense, and I hope, somewhat educational about what really happened in history.

I look forward to checking it out. Thanks so much for stopping by and good luck in your plans of world conquest through diabetes induced homicide. Beth Cato is the author of the Clockwork Dagger series from Harper Voyager, which includes her Nebula-nominated novella WINGS OF SORROW AND BONE. Her newest novel is BREATH OF EARTH. She’s a Hanford, California native transplanted to the Arizona desert, where she lives with her husband, son, and requisite cat. Follow her at BethCato.com and on Twitter at @BethCato.

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Nebula Nomination and Facing the Green-Eyed Monster

Recently, The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) announced the nominees for the 2015 Nebula award here. For those who don’t know, the Nebula and Hugo awards are usually considered the most prestigious awards for writers of science fiction and fantasy. The Hugo is like the People’s Choice award, in that it’s nominated and voted on by anyone who purchases a membership to WorldCon. The Nebula awards are more like the Academy Awards (Oscars). It’s nominated, voted on, and presented by SFWA, an organization of professionals in the science fiction and fantasy world. The list of Nebula nominees this year is collection of incredible writing by a very diverse group of writers. It includes men, women, people of color, and LGBT authors. Check out the list, you’re sure to find some truly great reads there.I am not among the list of nominees, I had four pieces eligible which I talk about here. Do note however that the Hugo nomination process is open until 3/31. It goes without saying that I’m disappointed, but I’m not terribly surprised. Don’t get me wrong, I think my work was solid and I’m well and truly proud of what I produced last year. But considering the caliber of writers who get nominations, not to mention that I’m new to the writing world and still largely unknown, I knew the odds. That being said, I’m proud to say that a fellow Impulse author (and maker of evilly delicious treats), Beth Cato, was nominated for her novella, Wings of Sorrow and Bone. I’m ridiculously happy for Beth and she absolutely deserves the nomination and, I believe, the award.This does however put me in a position I imagine a lot of people have been. I’m both happy for those who were nominated (yeah, Beth!) and also very jealous. Many people will say to get over it, that jealousy or envy is a terrible emotion and that you mustn’t let it consume you. While I agree with the latter part, I disagree about it being a terrible or negative emotion. I’m not sure there are purely negative or positive emotions. It’s really about what you do with them that defines not only them, but you. I could let my envy drive me to write a long and furious rant about how I was robbed, or snubbed for one reason or another, and deserve the nomination much more than so-and-so. But I don’t want to be that person. Really, does anyone? Okay, the internet is packed with people who clearly don’t mind, but I don’t want to be one of those people either.So what to do? For me, it’s simple. I’m going to use that emotion to become a better writer. One who writes better books, and try again next year, and the year after that, and the year after that if need be. If I want to win a Nebula or Hugo, then like getting published, all I can do is keep producing the best writing I can. Until then, I just need to remember that there are a lot of amazing writers who have never been nominated for a Nebula. So, I’m in good company. In the end, it isn’t what you feel about something that defines you, it’s how you react to it. You bet I’m jealous of the nominees, but I’m also happy for them because I know they are undoubtedly as excited about it as I would be if it were me. So I’ll cheer them all on, because if/when my time comes, I hope those who weren’t nominated will do that same for me.The lesson though isn’t just for me, or other writers. Everyone can relate to this. It might not be an award. Maybe someone else got a promotion you were hoping for. Or you didn’t get the job you really wanted. Or any one of a thousand other things where you didn’t get what you hoped for. You can envy those who did make it, but don’t let that green-eyed monster devour you. Put a saddle on that scaly beast and take it for a ride, cheering and applauding for those who did get a win. Be the person you hope others will be when it’s your turn.